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June 21, 2008
Roundtable: Best opening-week game
At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each of the Rivals.com national writers for their opinion about a gridiron topic.
TODAY'S QUESTION: Which opening-week game are you most looking forward to this season?
There's Illinois-Missouri in St. Louis. Both will be ranked, and the teams are rivals. Plus, the game-within-the game between Illinois' defense and Missouri's offense has appeal.
Yet, I'm most intrigued by Rich Rodriguez's coaching debut at Michigan - against Utah. Here's a highly successful coach with a wide-open offensive system taking over a legendary program in which the majority of the players were recruited for a much different style of play.
Meanwhile, Utah projects to be a team that could equal or improve on last season's nine-win total. Teams from conferences such as the Mountain West relish the opportunity to beat members of one of the "Big Six" conferences.
Some observers feel the Wolverines' streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances is in jeopardy this season, so every game is of utmost importance. The opener against Utah may provide a glimpse of what's to come for Michigan this season.
I can't wait to get my first glimpse of Michigan under Rich Rodriguez. And it will come in Ann Arbor on Aug. 30 against a talented and well-coached Utah club led by Kyle Whittingham.
Are you thinking what I am thinking – that the Wolverines could be toppled in their home opener for a second season in a row by a non-BCS foe? You bet.
The Rodriguez-to-Michigan saga has droned on since the day he left West Virginia for Michigan. Since then, no program has received more scrutiny. And aside from Georgia Tech, no program has undergone as radical a make-over. Will the quintessential non-Michigan man and his very un-Michigan spread option offense work in Ann Arbor? We finally will start getting answers to some of these questions.
Oregon-Washington should provide some early drama. Several of the biggest storylines in the Pac-10 will unfold in Week One, thanks to this game.
How good can Jake Locker be? The Washington quarterback can either be Tim Tebow -lite or Tim Tebow 2.0. We'll find out when he faces one of the best secondaries in the country and an effective pass rusher in Nick Reed.
Which version of Oregon will we see – the one that flopped for three losses without Dennis Dixon or the one that pounded USF 56-21 with Justin Roper at quarterback in the bowl game?
Of course, there's also the question we will be asking all season: Is this it for Tyrone Willingham at Washington?
I'll take Illinois-Missouri in St. Louis.
First off, you have to love a neutral-site game between rivals. Second, both will be ranked – Missouri in the top 10 and Illinois in the top 20. Third, both have quarterbacks who can be fun to watch and game-breakers at wide receiver. Fourth, Mizzou's offense and Illinois' defense are the respective strengths of the team, making for a particularly enticing matchup when the Tigers have the ball.
Mizzou is being touted as a national-title contender, while Illinois hopes to follow up on its breakout season in '07 with another New Year's Bowl appearance. A victory in the opener would get each team on the way to its goal.
The Clemson-Alabama game at the Georgia Dome seems the most interesting of the opening-week games to me because it could tell us a great deal about teams with high hopes.
Clemson enters the season as a prohibitive favorite to win its first ACC title since 1991, even though the Tigers haven't even reached the conference championship game since the league split into two divisions. The Tigers return virtually their entire defense and all their skill-position players on offense. Alabama also has reason for optimism after attracting the nation's top recruiting class.
Even though this isn't a conference showdown, this game still means a lot because the loser could face plenty of adversity. If Alabama wins, skeptics are going to wonder if this is the same old Clemson team that never delivers when it matters most. Clemson also needs a win to justify the ACC's claim that it remains one of the nation's top conferences. ACC backers won't have much of an argument in that regard if their preseason conference favorite loses to a team that went 7-6 last year and is picked by most people to finish no better than third in the SEC West.
If Clemson wins, Nick Saban could face questions about whether he has this program going in the right direction, considering the Tide lost their final four regular-season games in 2007. Quarterback John Parker Wilson certainly can't afford a poor performance against Clemson in his first game with new coordinator Jim McElwain after suffering a late-season slump last year.
That this game is at a neutral site only increases the stakes because neither team can blame this loss on the notion that it was playing in front of a hostile crowd.